One could say that the whole mess started in 2013, when the Constitutional Court, the supreme judicial body of the Dominican Republic, immediately rendered some 200,000 of its citizens stateless. “The ruling retroactively stripped Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship back to 1929,” says France François, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Haitian Professionals and fervent advocate for social justice in the Dominican Republic.
“So, if in 1930, your great-great grandma came to work on a sugar plantation, you and your parents and grandparents and anyone related to you who was born in the Dominican Republic would all lose your citizenship. Calling Dominicans of Haitian descent ‘foreigners in transit,’ the government is exploiting a loophole in the existing law of birthright citizenship. They’re tearing up communities that have existed for decades.”
Aside from the human toll, the ruling violates the Dominican Republic’s own constitution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948 in response to Nazi Germany’s heinous treatment of Jews, homosexuals, and other minority groups in the run-up to World War II. The Dominican government often argues that Dominicans of Haitian descent are Haitian nationals, not Dominicans. Under Haiti’s current citizenship laws, however, people of Haitian descent born outside of the country do not automatically have access to Haitian citizenship. Not Haitian and no longer Dominican, those born in the Dominican Republic—frequently not speakers of Creole or French, with no immediate familial ties or social connections to Haiti—then become stateless and are barred from attending school beyond the eighth grade, attending university, engaging in a profession, freely traveling outside of the Dominican Republic, getting legally married, or owning property.
“To understand why it suddenly became an issue, you need to understand the background,” says François. “There is a long history of antihaitianismo going back decades and used as a political tool. Even before the 2013 ruling passed, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled four times that the Dominican Republic was in violation of international human rights laws. The DR recused itself from the court, then passed the two-prong process: nationalization and regularization. The Dominican government said that these plans were supposed to ‘fix’ what the ruling had done by retroactively revoking citizenship. If you hadn’t registered proof of citizenship or applied for residency by June 17, 2015, you’d be deported in a pledge to ‘socially cleanse’ the country.”
“It’s a gross violation of human rights—having your citizenship revoked in the country of your birth.”
“They’ve applied the registration and nationalization processes similarly to how voting rights laws were applied in the American South up until the 1960s: constant hurdles—police checkpoints, challenging documents, threats, harassment, and deportation. There are only 28 offices nationwide and none in areas where Haitians reside. They’ve had separate, long lines for Dominicans of Haitian descent and a fast-track for other ethnic groups, like Italians and Spaniards. Haitians had their documents challenged, were sent back for more docs, more money, etc. It’s a gross violation of human rights—having your citizenship revoked in the country of your birth.”
But anyone familiar with the history of the Dominican Republic and Haiti—brother nations sharing the island of Hispaniola, but colonized by different European powers that destroyed the indigenous population and imported several thousands of enslaved Africans—knows that this issue goes much farther back than 2013. “This anti-Haitianism is deeply entrenched, so even before this, you saw it in everyday interactions,” affirms François. “You still see blackface ads. The Haitian bogeyman raped your wife, stole your job. There’s always a Haitian to blame when the government doesn’t provide for its poorer citizens like it should.”
Indeed, Haitians have been used as bogeymen for decades, most infamously when U.S.-backed right-wing dictator Rafael Trujillo executed scores of Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans in 1937. The color-struck Trujillo also ordered the nation’s history books changed to attribute the country’s prominent African heritage and culture to the exterminated Taínos, the island’s indigenous inhabitants who, incidentally, called the whole island Ayiti. Regarding the issue of race between the two countries, François says that the situation is complex, as none of Latin America subscribes to the one-drop rule established in the U.S. “But colorism and xenophobia get to the core of these issues. Afro-Dominican poet Blas Jiménez wrote ‘We are Dominican because we’re not Haitian. We’re this because we’re not that.’ The DR has gone through several processes of whitening, just like other countries in Latin America, encouraging immigration from Europe and expelling Afro-descendants. This is just the latest iteration of that. There is the process of painting the DR literally and figuratively as a Spanish, European country. It wasn’t until 2011 that you could even claim to be of African descent on the census.”
“There’s always a Haitian to blame when the government doesn’t provide for its poorer citizens like it should.”
With election season gearing up for next year’s presidential race, nationalistic sentiment runs high. Echoing the Jim Crow South, Haitians have been lynched for minuscule transgressions and there are frequent public burnings of the Haitian flag. The government, meanwhile, is deporting undocumented migrants who could not get “regularized” by the June 17th deadline, along with legal citizens, according to the Association of Haitian Professionals. Meanwhile, several thousand Haitians have fled, fearing for their lives in accordance with the government’s wishes. “This is state-sponsored violence,” says François, “and there are no consequences for anyone who does violence against someone who is supposedly Haitian in the DR.”
In the U.S., protests in Miami, Washington, and New York City, as well as public rebukes from humanitarian organizations and high-profile Dominican-Americans, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, have raised the stakes. But many Dominicans in the U.S. who do speak out against the government back on the island have had their families threatened, according to François. “Generally, the Dominican-Americans understand what it would feel like to be told you’re no longer American and have to go back to the DR, so they understand how traumatic and life-changing and disruptive that would be. The majority are supportive of our actions for justice, but there are still some, who are older, who tow the party line and complain about them taking their social welfare, etc. But amongst the youth, they understand.”
“It’s easy to get bogged down in the rhetoric. You have to have the conversations, the face-to-face contact. You have to get beyond ‘all Haitians are poor and all Dominicans are racist.’ Otherwise, the Dominican government would win. It would tell us that we’re different, that we have nothing in common, that we’re not all just people.”
“It’s easy to get bogged down in the rhetoric. You have to get beyond ‘all Haitians are poor and all Dominicans are racist.’”
Some of the more vocal critics of the Dominican government’s actions have called for boycotts of the tourism-dependent country. But François’ organization is reluctant: “We’ve been careful about calling for a boycott. When we tried it last year, it caused all kinds of problems on the ground for dark-skinned folk who may or may not be of Haitian descent. When it was felt on the ground, that was when the lynching started, the flag burning.”
François also weighed in on the Dominican Republic’s popularity among black men, some of whom have dismissed the issue as not affecting them. “All black lives matter. I had a conversation about sexual exploitation in the DR and it’s a very open market for Dominican women. They have very little power in Dominican society and Americans tend to go down there and participate in it in some shape or form, intentionally or not. I would ask black men to be honest. Is it worth it? Is having green speak louder than black worth participating in the sexual exploitation of women, and participating in an economy that doesn’t value you as a human being?”